A Serious Evaluation
The intense media interest in U.S. Supreme Court appointments this year has caused the ABA’s process for evaluating the professional qualifications of nominees for federal judicial appointments to be much in the news.
Established in 1947 to provide the U.S. appointing powers–the president and the Senate–with a rigorous review of a candidate’s qualifications for judicial service, the ABA Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary has a long and distinguished history of rating nominees for the federal bench. Speaking to reporters after an address to the ABA House of Delegates in August, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales noted that “the ABA rating has been pronounced by certain members of the Senate as the gold standard in evaluating judicial candidates.”
The media coverage that accompanies a Supreme Court nomination–along with the efforts of the many constituent groups that weigh in with their support or opposition–can force such essential considerations as integrity, professional competence and judicial temperament to take a backseat to party affiliation and ideology.
Recognizing the integrity of the standing committee and its value to the president and the Senate, Attorney General Gonzales thanked the House of Delegates “on behalf of the president” for the work of the standing committee and the ABA’s continued interest in and contributions to a well qualified judiciary.
To ensure an impartial, nonpartisan evaluation, the standing committee’s peer review procedures are carefully structured to focus solely on a judicial nominee’s professional qualifications; the committee does not consider a nominee’s ideology.
Chaired this year by Stephen L. Tober of Portsmouth, N.H., the committee comprises 15 lawyers of the highest experience and integrity. It includes two members from the 9th Circuit, one member from each of the other 12 federal judicial circuits and one member at large. Each committee member is a highly respected, well known attorney in his or her circuit, and thus has the visibility and credibility within the local legal community to enable an in depth investigation. Interviewees know they can be frank and forthright about the professional qualifications of a nominee, not only because information will be held in confidence, but because of the trustworthiness of the interviewer.
An Exacting Approach
Members volunteer up to 600 hours each year in committee service. During the course of an investigation, members conduct an extensive series of interviews with a broad spectrum of individuals, including judges, lawyers, litigants, bar association leaders and other legal professionals. The goal is to hear the views of a diverse cross section of the practicing bar with sufficient knowledge of the nominee to assess his or her qualifications.
At the conclusion of all inquiries, a formal report, with a description of the nominee’s background and summaries of interviews, is sent to each committee member. The committee rates the nominee based on these interviews, legal writings and an interview with the nominee in which any adverse information raised during the investigation is discussed. Every aspect of this process is scrupulously designed to produce a fair and objective evaluation. In short, the committee is more qualified to give a professional assessment of a nominee than any other available source.
The committee then votes to rate the nominee–as either “well qualified,” “qualified” or “not qualified.” Evaluations are strictly based on the merits of the individual nominee not on the basis of any comparative ranking alongside other possible candidates.
The committee is entirely separate and independent from the rest of the ABA. In order to ensure that its evaluative function is not compromised, the committee does not propose candidates for the federal judiciary. Officers and other ABA leaders are not informed of the committee’s conclusions about a nominee until the Senate Judiciary Committee and the administration receive the official rating.
While on the committee, members pledge not to make federal political contributions, nor to serve as an ABA officer or become a candidate for such a position. Members also agree not to seek or accept a federal judicial appointment while serving on the committee and for one year thereafter.
For more information on the work of this extraordinary committee, visit its Web site at www.abanet.org/scfedjud or contact its outstanding staff director, Denise Cardman, at 202-662-1761 or at [email protected]